On one level Act Without Words I “seems a behaviourist experiment within a classical myth”, that of Tantalus, who stood in a pool of water which receded every time he bent to drink it, and stood under a fruit tree which raised its branches every time he reached for food. In the 1930s Beckett read Wolfgang Köhler’s book, The Mentality of Apes about the colony of apes in Tenerife, where experiments were conducted in which the apes also placed cubes on top of another in order to reach a banana” and is clearly referenced in this piece.
Tantalus was punished for stealing ambrosia and nectar. It is not certain that the man is being punished for a crime other than that of existing in the first place. The situation is similar to that of the narrator in Beckett's 1955 The Expelled, whose story begins with him being jettisoned from the place he was living (“The fall was … not serious. Even as I fell I heard the door slam, which brought me a little comfort … [for] that meant they were not pursuing me down the street with a stick, to beat me.”) “into an environment where he cannot exist but cannot escape … Whereas Godot’s existence remains uncertain, here an external force exists” “represented by a sharp, inhuman, disembodied whistle” which will not permit him to leave; “like Jacob, [he] wrestles with it to illustrate its substance.” In simplistic terms the man’s actual fall could be seen to represent the Fall of man.
The fact that the man is literally, as far as the audience is concerned, thrown into existence brings to mind the Heideggerian concept of Geworfenheit (‘Throwness’).” Heidegger is clearly using the expression metaphorically as is Beckett; the man is expelled from a womb-like condition, from non-being into being. This is not the first time Beckett has used light to symbolise existence: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” The protagonist is nameless, he is Everyman. “As Beckett told Barney Rosset, his longtime U.S. publisher, in 1957: he is just ‘human meat or bones.’”
When he first looks at his hands it is “”as though [he is] noticing his own body for the first time … Having become cognisant of his Dasein … [he is willing to] accept the presence of various Seiendes”, as Heidegger calls existing objects, that start to appear beginning with the tree.
When the scissors arrive the man begins to trim his nails “for no other reason than the sudden availability of the correct object. The scissors of course could stand for any other useful object of daily living such as a house or car, objects whose "thereness" is most often taken for granted.”
The play is a parable of resignation; a state one reaches only after a series of disappointments. The man has learned ‘the hard way’ that there is nothing he can rely on in life other than himself.
G. C. Barnard argues the prevalent interpretation of the ending; the protagonist does not move because he is simply crushed: ‘the man remains, defeated, having opted out of the struggle, lying on the empty desert.’ “But within this obvious, traditional ending, Beckett works his consummate skill, for the real play begins with its terminus. The climactic ending of the mime may signify not a pathetic defeat, but a conscious rebellion, man’s deliberate refusal to obey. Lucky has finally turned on Pozzo. Ironically then, the protagonist is most active when inert, and his life acquires meaning at its end. In this refusal, this cutting of the umbilical rope, a second birth occurs, the birth of Man.” Man has given birth to himself even though it appears it will mean the death of him. It is a victory of sorts, albeit a hollow one.
Beckett on Film
A filmed version of Act Without Words I was directed by Karel Reisz for the 2001 Beckett on Film project, with music specially composed by Michael Nyman.